NEW DELHI: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala says trade will be important to help the global recovery from the pandemic induced recession. And World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules should continue to guarantee a stable, predictable and fair multilateral trading system that can help world economies survive and thrive. A former finance and foreign minister of Nigeria, Okonjo-Iweala is one of eight candidates (and one of three women) in the fray for post of WTO director general. Ahead of the end of the second phase of the selection process on 7 September, Okonjo-Iweala also says that the WTO’s consensus-driven approach has worked in the past but now, a lack of trust among members seems to be the stumbling block. She speaks about her priorities—making WTO more visible in an interview. Edited excerpts.
You are one of the candidates from Africa. Are you confident of getting selected for the job?
I think I have the wind behind my back. I have had constructive conversations all around. Of course one can never be sure till the last minute. It is with humility that I say this. The WTO is facing a lot of challenges and I think members are looking for people capable of taking on those challenges and helping members to solve them.
What about conversations with Indian government representatives?
Yes I have had a conversation with the Indian ambassador to the WTO which was constructive and I have also had a conversation with the minister of trade (Piyush Goyal) and it has been very constructive. India is a powerhouse in the WTO and India is a powerhouse in the world. It is very active and many times, it spearheads or champions the causes of developing countries. It is active in the policy space for developing countries, especially the least developed countries according them special and differential treatment in order for them to develop. India is a frequent user of the dispute settlement mechanism of the WTO. It is active in the ongoing fisheries negotiations as well. So for that reason it’s very important to reckon with India and I have to say I have been very pleased with the constructive conversations that I have had.
The US and China have major disagreements on trade. They have other disagreements as well. How are you going to get these two countries to back you?
People often talk of the difficult relations between the US and China or different views among members. I take a slightly different approach. And I know that are these different views—the world is getting more polarised in some senses. But there are also common views, common things that these countries are doing in common and I think the appropriate way to look at it is what are those things that you can build on. I am talking in the context of the WTO now because you need to be careful to separate other political issues from WTO issues. If you focus on WTO issues, there are some areas where members have seemingly difficult disagreements but they also work together. Take for example fisheries subsidies’ negotiations that are going on now. It is a multilateral negotiation, India is there. China is there. The US is there. So I think it is a good beginning to think that it can all come together around one table to discuss the sustainability of our oceans as well as at the same time help small scale fisheries. So this is a good thing to deliver. If you look at China and the US and the issue of the dispute settlement system that has remained paralysed for some time. One thing is very clear, the US wants it. China wants it, India wants it. Different members want it reformed in different ways but one commonality is they want it, they think it’s important so if you start building from these commonalities that bridges some of the gaps and get agreement around things that can bring members together. So, I would build from that and once you show one success you can build on that because it builds confidence among members.
There is also this fear that there might not be consensus on any one candidate and WTO may not see a DG anytime soon.
I don’t know what members would decide or not decide, but I hope there is an ability to bring consensus as soon as possible on a DG because WTO needs leadership of a DG. So, I am hopeful. Now there is an appetite for reform and a recognition that things need to reform beyond where WTO is now, to give a positive image because all the things that the media is writing that it is dysfunctional and it’s not working. WTO is too important. I am passionate about how trade lifts millions from poverty. I have seen trade do that. WTO has to underpin that. So, I believe and I am hopeful that members will come to some conclusion.
Countries are now going in for regional and bilateral trading pacts. Does that make the WTO irrelevant?
I think the WTO is very relevant because the multilateral trading system that we all believe in is still very relevant notwithstanding all the bilateral and regional agreements. The multilateral trading system is a platform from which all members, all 164 countries can come around for negotiations and they have a dispute resolution mechanism to which they can bring disputes. This is unique and we are going to have the multilateral system because trade is an essential part of the 21st century. So, WTO will continue to be relevant as a rules-based organisation but the WTO needs to move up to take cognisance of 21st century issues very quickly in order not to fall too behind. I think that one of the reasons why you are seeing so many bilateral and regional agreements is because the WTO has fallen a bit behind, it is not up to speed. When I talk of 21st century issues I am talking about the digital economy. You have seen how the pandemic has just accelerated this, there was already a trend towards this. But covid-19 has accelerated this and everything is done digitally. There is e-commerce. But as we speak the e-commerce negotiations are ongoing and they are not multilateral but plurilateral—which means not every member is participating in those meetings. So that means the WTO has fallen behind. So what I am advocating is that the WTO needs to embrace these new issues because if it doesn’t, you have bilateral agreements of countries or regional agreements. The other is the green economy. The WTO also needs to look at the trade rules that can support sustainability. And that is why the fisheries negotiations is exciting because it does support sustainability and bio-diversity of our oceans but we need more—the WTO needs to be cognisant of the circular economy and the micro, medium and small enterprises which are very important in India and elsewhere in the developing world. These are what create most of the employment. And most of these are operated by women. So I think WTO rules need to be more inclusive of MSMEs as well as women. Let me also speak about covid-19. I am the WHO (world health organisation) envoy on covid ( for accelerating availability of vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics) and African Union envoy on covid-19. And trade rules that govern the availability of access to things like vaccines need to be looked at. So, this can be an opportunity for WTO to actually help solve a key problem by looking at accessibility and affordability, for countries to license the production of drugs or things like vaccines under WTO rules while still protecting intellectual property rights so that research and innovation can continue. WTO has a lot to say about that but it has to be vocal and visible. I bring the issues of public health and trade together.
What is the future of world trade and WTO given the covid-19 pandemic scenario?
There is an intersection between public health and trade—the pandemic is here to stay and the WTO has a vital role to play through the recovery. We have seen around 90 countries impose export restrictions on medical supplies and equipment. And we have seen an acceleration of the digital economy because of the pandemic. So the key issue is, what are the rules for this new period, how do we agree rules to govern trade – not just for the next one or two years but for the long term. Trade will be important to help the global recovery from the pandemic induced recession. WTO rules should continue to guarantee a stable, predictable and fair multilateral trading system that can help world economies survive and thrive.
You said WTO needs to embrace new issues like e-commerce. There is a certain view among many developing countries including India that existing issues like Doha Development Agenda need to be resolved first before we take up new issues. Do you think that approach has failed and we need to have a broader mind to accommodate emerging issues?
Let’s separate these into two sets of issues. First of all, many developing member countries are feeling let down by the non-completion of the Doha Development Agenda. There are some specific mandates like public stockholding for food security which could be made permanent with greater transparency around it. So we can work on some of those. The issue of digital economy is somewhat different. There are different reasons why some members have not embraced it yet. I think they have a point. India talks very much about digital divide and that is a very fair point. There are many developing countries that feel that “why I am participating in this negotiation as I don’t have the basic infrastructure, I don’t have the regulatory framework, I may go there and make commitments and later on I might not find it appropriate.” I think what we should assist these countries to try to bridge that digital divide. If I were to be chosen as DG, I would make it a point to embrace that issue. I think India is right in pointing that out and so are many developing countries. WTO is not a financial organization but we can work with the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, African Development Bank—bring them together in a consortium to show the developing countries that “look, we will put together these resources to help you solve this problem. So can you now embrace this negotiation because we are going to deal with these issues”. WTO itself has something called aid for trade and that can also be useful to help countries build their regulatory framework. Putting all this together, once you have done that, countries can now begin to embrace it. You don’t even have to complete it, just show good faith that you recognize the problem and are going to solve it because digital economy and e-commerce are here to stay. So, we should solve the hesitations and problems of developing countries and then try to move to see how we can have multilateral negotiations.
Do you think the consensus-driven decision making approach at the WTO has hindered progress on many crucial issues and it should be changed?
The consensus-driven approach worked for years and years and delivered a lot of benefits to the WTO members. We need to ask why it stopped working now and should try to fix that. It delivered in GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), then it delivered in WTO for past 25 years and it is only now that it does not seem to be working as well. I think it is because of lack of trust among members, whether between developed or developing or within larger members of WTO. We need to find a way to rebuild this trust and once we start rebuilding the trust, then the consensus building approach will work better.
Another contentious issue between developed and developing countries is the special and differential treatment. The US in particular has been advocating that large emerging economies like India and China must not enjoy it?
First of all special and differential treatment is a very divisive issue within the WTO as you said and has to be approached very carefully. I don’t think anyone has problem with special and differential treatment for least developed countries which are very well-defined within the terms of United Nations. The way we should approach it is by listening to all sides. The developed countries who have problems as well as the developing countries who see it differently. The way I would approach it is to take it negotiation by negotiation and let the agreements implemented according to the capacity, timing and level of development of each member. This has been done before under the Trade Facilitation Agreement and it seems to have worked. So, I think that model where you allow implementation according to the level of development of a member and take it case by case, negotiation by negotiation, I think that is the approach to follow.
You touched upon the dispute settlement mechanism issue. What you think could be a possible way out of the current stalemate at the appellate body?
Appellate body is a two-tier system. The Americans have put forward a proposal of a one tier system and even ad hoc tribunals. What is very good about it is that we now have a variety of proposals on the table. This is now time to start discussions and see how members want to go about it. What is very constructive to me is that now there are grounds for discussion and that has put a smile on my face because now WTO can move forward and members can discuss an approach. Whatever comes out must be independent and impartial and one that all members believe has credibility.